Sammy Smith Leads Americans in Eighth as World Juniors Kick Off with Classic Sprint in Sunny Whistler


WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — When this reporter blurbed the sprint course for 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships earlier this week, based off of only a quick look at the course profile in the homologation certificate, I wrote: “The sprint course has a 25-meter climb immediately out of the stadium, then is mostly downhill back to the finish, albeit with the false flat finish that is best practices for cross-country stadia.”

After watching a full day of heats play out on this course, I’d now like to emphasize the false flat finish a little more, and the big uphill a little less.

Or as Ava Thurston, who has actually skied the course, put it in her post-race remarks to Nordic Insights, “Last night in our team meeting we were talking some strategy, and how a lot of the race is still left from the top of the hill. From right before where you go into the downhill to the finish is where so much can change, and that’s kind of when the race can be won or lost. … So you have to have some energy left for the final stretch.”

Let’s zoom out a little. Saturday morning brought the junior women’s 1.3-kilometre classic sprint, the opening event of this year’s World Junior and U23 Championships. Eevi-Inkeri Tossavainen of Finland won, over Milla Grosberghaugen Andreassen of Norway and Lisa Eriksson of Sweden

Sammy Smith had the top American finish on the day, for either gender, of eighth, which was somehow worse than her fifth-place finish in the skate sprint at last year’s World Juniors, when she was 16.

Nina Schamberger and Ava Thurston also made the heats, ending the day in 19th and 25th overall after finishing fourth and fifth in their quarterfinals, respectively. Haley Brewster narrowly missed making the heats in 32nd, 1.02 seconds out of 30th.

The sun was shining. The mountains were gleaming. The weather was really, really darn pleasant at a venue that has a reputation for being notoriously damp. The general feel from the American camp was that Smith was, understandably and deservedly, disappointed not to make it back to the final this year, but that it was otherwise a strong start to the championships for the junior women.

*   *   *

Haley Brewster (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

Let’s back up. Here’s Haley Brewster (University of Vermont), 19, on how the qualifier felt. (All quotes in this article are from in-person interviews at the finish.)

“It was hard. Going up that first hill, it’s quite a kicker, and it hit pretty hard. But it was nice to have all the coaches scattered in the woods cheering.”

Brewster noted that she approached the course by “trying to push that flatter, gradual section and definitely take the downhill smart. We did a lot of tactical talks yesterday, so mostly just going out with a good plan and sticking to it.”

As for overall highlights, Brewster noted, “mostly having a finish higher than my bib for placement [i.e., her seeding based on her FIS sprint points] was nice to see. And this summer we raced against a lot of these girls at Junior Camp [in Norway]. So it was cool to see a lot of familiar faces out there and kind of see what people did over the fall and winter.”

And here’s Nina Schamberger (Summit Nordic Ski Club), 17, on her day. You can see Schamberger’s quarterfinal heat no. 2 starting at roughly the 22-minute mark of the livestream replay:

(If you’re a Schamberger fan — and you should be; she’s thoughtful and gracious — you should also click over and read this long profile of her by Ryan Sederquist in yesterday’s Vail Daily, focusing in part on what she has learned growing up in Leadville, Colorado, at over 10,000 feet.)

Anyway, here’s Schamberger, expansive after her finish, standing in the sun on a perfect day for skiing.

“This is my first sprint at Junior Worlds, and it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done, competing with these really, really fast girls. It was a challenge. But I’m really happy with how it went, and just so happy to be here.”

Schamberger’s goal for the day was “To stay in the pack, and in the last doublepole section, try to really go for it. I did go from second to fourth there, so if anything it’s a good opportunity to learn that, oh, I need to work on my closing speed specifically with doublepoling, which has been a weakness of mine for a while. So I’m taking this as an amazing opportunity and learning experience, and I’m excited for more. … I think my biggest area for growth opportunity is the finish area. Specifically doublepoling; I just need to get more practice with max speed.”

Nina Schamberger (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

When asked about the significance of the stadium portion of the course, Schamberger observed, “You get to the bottom of the hill, and you’re already gassed. And then you have such a long section of doublepole where I was just trying to hang on, fighting as hard as I could.”

Finally, Schamberger was asked what she would say to junior athletes reading this now who are currently at roughly the level she was at five years ago. She spoke (editorializing here, sorry) cogently and insightfully just minutes after convulsing on the ground in the finish area gasping for breath, before collecting herself and making her way to the mixed zone. Skiing!

So what would Schamberger say to juniors?

“I would say — man, so many things — but in a nutshell, just keep going. Make sure the process is fun. Because if it’s not fun, then why bother doing it? Surround yourself with people that push you and make you better. And just remember, at the end of the day, we’re here to ski around in circles as fast as we can, and just enjoy it.”

Ava Thurston (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

Schamberger was followed, on the results sheet and in the quarterfinals, by Ava Thurston (Dartmouth College), who raced in quarterfinal no. 3 (27-minute mark of the livestream), finishing a narrow fifth.

Thurston sounded similar notes to her American teammate regarding how her heat ended up skiing.

“My thought for skiing the heat was just staying in it on the uphill hoping to be around third or fourth,” she noted. “So I was pretty happy with coming down around the hill in third or fourth, and then I fell behind a little bit in the doublepole. That’s something I’m still working on.”

Thurston also brought a quest for refinement to the prospect of mid-race adjustments. “I think what I learned from the qualifier is that I was trying to think about adjusting mid-race,” she noted. “Because I don’t think I did a great job of that in the qualifier because I was kind of tense. And I was like, Oh no, I’m tense. And I just kept being tense on the next hill. And I was kind of in a cycle.”

So in her quarterfinal heat, by contrast, “I worked on just being able to adjust throughout the race, like, Okay, I’m behind here, but how am I going to come around the corner? And can I like relax my shoulders on this next hill? So I think not getting caught in the, ‘This is going bad’ loop. So I think something I’m going to try and work on for the rest of the season is just being able to adjust on the fly.”

Sammy Smith (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

And finally, Sammy Smith (USST/Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation), 17, set the pace for the Americans. The results note that she moved out of quarterfinal no. 1 (16:30 mark of the livestream) in second, well over a second clear of third — but she was solidly in fourth going into the final downhill, at least two-thirds of the way through the course. Smith did not panic, however, then used fast skis, and a prodigious doublepole, to start making up the gap. She was already safely in second by the time the athletes had reached the start of the finishing lanes, and kept that position to the finish.

“I was kind of in the track behind people,” Smith recalled of her quarterfinal heat, “and our coaches told us to be as patient as possible because there’s a pretty big draft on the downhill, so I was just trying to conserve and then go for the sprint at the end.”

Smith got off the line somewhat slowly in her semifinal (1:10 mark of replay), and was narrowly in sixth going up the steep hill out of the stadium. She seemed to lose contact as the climb continued, and remained in sixth over the crest of the hill. She was still in sixth, and frankly pretty far back, coming off the downhill and into the stadium.

But you should probably never count anyone out in a sprint race, and as today made clear, you should definitely never count Smith out in a doublepole finish. 

Sammy Smith (not yet in frame at right) finished fourth in this heat. (photo: screenshot from live broadcast)

Smith moved into fourth by the finish but was unable to move up farther than that. Third in her heat was the day’s final lucky loser position; Smith ended her day in eighth overall.

The semifinal outcome was “not great, not what I was hoping for,” Smith said candidly. “But I still split a couple seconds faster than I qualified.”

“I didn’t have the best start,” Smith continued. “And I think if I would have had a little better start, maybe I could have got a better position into that first hill.” She also noted that she considers himself more of a runner when it comes to classic skiing, less of a strider, and so the other athletes were “kind of wrecking me on that uphill. But it’s fun.”

Women’s final results and times (photo: screenshot from broadcast)

At the end of the day, Eevi-Inkeri Tossavainen of Finland won the final, over Milla Grosberghaugen Andreassen of Norway and Lisa Eriksson of Sweden. Eriksson was third in the final but had perhaps the day’s single most impressive performance before that, advancing out of her quarterfinal even after being caught up and tripped on the course’s big left-hand turn, falling completely to the ground while the rest of the field went past her.

“I was feeling so strong all the way here,” Tossavainen said after her finish. “I woke up and I felt that today is going to be my day.” Tossavainen added that the stadium was “quite long,” and so her doublepoling needed to be strong. She extended her thanks to the Finnish support staff, and to her teammate, Eero Rantala, for making the podium in the men’s race.

Racing continues tomorrow with the U23 classic sprint. Four of Sydney Palmer-Leger, Novie McCabe, Sophia Laukli, Anabel Needham, and Kate Oldham will start for the American women.

Unofficial results: qual | finals

— Gavin Kentch

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